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The Des Moines Register July 31, 2005

Terror threat prompt new look at rules

By Philip Brasher

Washington, D.C. - You can never look at a backpack the same way, if you ride Washington's subway. Not after this month's bombings in London.

But if terrorists really want to make an impression, it's still hard to beat their old standby - the truck packed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

For a large bomb, "It's the ingredient of choice," says John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org.

Now, four years after the 9/11 attacks and 10 years after a truck bomb destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building, the fertilizer industry is considering the first federal regulation of ammonium nitrate sales.

Legislation that has been introduced in the House and Senate could require all dealers - and buyers - of ammonium nitrate to register with state agencies. Dealers also would be required to maintain records of all sales of the fertilizer, including the telephone numbers and registration numbers of the buyers.

The legislation also authorizes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to inspect facilities for compliance. Violators could be fined up to $50,000 per violation.

The fertilizer industry long resisted federal regulation of ammonium nitrate. But the minds of company officials began to change last summer when the government started raising concerns about a potential attack, said Kathy Mathers of the Fertilizer Institute, the industry's trade group.

"There was agreement that the time was right to support something like this," she said.

She said the registration requirement should not be that much of a problem for farmers. It would be similar to what farmers and pesticide applicators go through to buy restricted-use insecticides.

Pike, the Globalsecurity.org official, said the legislation does not go far enough. Requiring dealers to get and keep pictures of buyers would be a further deterrent to a would-be terrorist, he said.

The legislation has some heavyweight supporters. In the Senate, the Republican sponsors include Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, chairmen of the appropriations, intelligence and agriculture committees, respectively.

All three also happen to be major players on agricultural issues, which is important since farmers and agribusinesses are the ones most likely to be inconvenienced with the proposed regulations.

Over in the House, the legislation is sponsored by Curt Weldon, R-Pa., and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., senior members of the House Homeland Security Committee.

"Not only does it contain effective measures, but it also has the kind of political support that will be necessary to move something through Congress," Mathers said of the legislation.

It isn't clear how quickly Congress is going to act on the regulations.

I asked Weldon's staff whether the recent London bombings had added any urgency to passing the legislation. Weldon answered this way in a written response:

"It is important to note that ammonium nitrate was not used in the London bombings, or in the Cairo bombings {Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt}," he said.

But then he said: "It is important that proper steps be taken to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on materials enabling them to attack America."

The agency that normally regulates explosives, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, would not have a say in regulating ammonium nitrate. The Agriculture Department wanted the Department of Homeland Security to have jurisdiction, not ATF, according to Weldon.

Speaking of security, the USDA has announced plans to send teams of federal experts to some farms, feedlots and food processors around the country to assess the vulnerabilities in the food chain.

This comes after a National Academy of Sciences report recently warned that putting a small amount of botulinum toxin into milk supplies could sicken up to 500,000 people.

Truck bombs? Botulism? And now backpacks. It's a different world out there.


Copyright 2005, The Des Moines Register